Just when I thought that Bukhara epitomized all there is to be seen in terms of mosques, madrasas and mausoleums; we venture into another such place – perhaps the most well-known among all the silk road cities – Samarkand.
the majestic registan square of samarkand – one of the most fascinating architectural ensembles I have seen
Unlike the more atmospheric Khiva and the more religious but understated Bukhara, Samarkand differentiates itself in grandeur. Also known as the “jewel of Islamic art,” the city was the capital of Tamerlane’s empire (the man responsible for bringing together the Uzbek identity) in the 14th century. Today, the city has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, credited as a “crossroads of culture” due to its pivotal role in bridging China and the West during the silk road era.
you know you’re in asia when people pose with the peace sign
We traveled to Samarkand from Bukhara by first making a stop in a small town called Shakhrisabz. Though not restored to the level of Bukhara or Khiva, this small town nonetheless also has a UNESCO designation. It is also the birthplace of Tamerlane and a statue of him stands proudly in a square in the city center. Though his rule was marked by savagery, he is still the founder of Uzbekistan and that’s how the present government wanted to remember him when they designated him as the defacto national hero and replaced statues of Lenin with this.
statue of tamerlane in shakhrisabz
From Shakhrisabz, it was a long but scenic drive to Samarkand, passing by green pastures and rolling hills that seemed to have been shaped by the wind.
scenic landscapes on the way to samarkand
Like Bukhara, Samarkand is actually a Tajik-speaking city. It is closer to Tajikistan than it is to Tashkent. But due to Stalin’s policies, the city came into Uzbek control during the separation between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that occurred under Soviet rule in 1929 and it has remained with Uzbekistan ever since. Political decisions aside, it is actually more convenient this way from a traveler’s perspective as all the 3 well-known silk road cities belong to just one country.
gur-e-amir mausoleum in samarkand
The first place we went to was the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum. Built in the 1400’s, it is the resting place of Tamerlane and some of his sons. From the outside, it actually looks quite similar to the other historic buildings we’ve seen in the previous two cities. From the inside, it is a different story. The mausoleum appears as a large chamber filled with several detailed beehive patterns in the four corners of the walls. The arches and the internal dome are filled with high-relief gilded papier-mache.
the tilya kori madrasa in samarkand
Afterwards, we visited the Registan. Arguably, the architectural highlight of Samarkand and perhaps of entire Uzbekistan. The square itself is surrounded by three madrasas, all looking grand with well-proportioned minarets, patterns characteristic of Islamic architecture and Arabic inscriptions. Of the three madrasas, a personal highlight for me is Tilya Kori Madrasa which is the building in between the other two. Of note is its gilded fake dome, which is meant to be an optical illusion.
there is actually no dome — it’s a flat ceiling but can you tell?
By this time, I was already quite mosqued-out (and madrasa’ed-out, too!) and that’s coming from someone really fascinated by Islamic architecture! Sure enough, there was another mosque for us to feast our eyes on, the Bibi Khanym Mosque. It suffered substantial damage during an earthquake in the 1890’s and as of now remains only partially restored. Named after Tamerlane’s favorite wife, it used to be the grand mosque of Samarkand.
at the bibi khanym mosque of samarkand
We capped our tour of Samarkand by visiting two places. The first of these later excursions was to Ulugbegh Observatory. It had a sextant which reminded me quite a bit of Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India. The last place we went to was the Shah-i-Zinda. It was impressively made. Composed of about 20 buildings, each mausoleum is customized. Unfortunately, it was getting dark by this time and we couldn’t visit each one.
top and bottom – the shah-e-zinda ensemble
We also ran past the local bazaar. The products were the normal things one would expect to find in a market. But it provides an interesting glimpse into local life.
a day in the bazaar
Samarkand is a grand city, there’s no doubt about it. Personally, I think I would have appreciated it more if it was the first place we visited. Honestly, by this time, I was already quite tired of seeing mosques, minarets and madrasas. While Samarkand is a bigger city with lots more to do, the sights are also more spread out, making it seem more like a modern, Soviet-looking city overall with some interesting structures here and there rather than having a cohesive old cit. Nevertheless, I found the Registan to be quite impressive. Certainly, it’s up there, along with Esfahan’s Imam Square, as one of the finest Islamic sights that I have visited.
Samarkand is about 5 hours from Tashkent by car. There are daily flights between Samarkand and Tashkent, as well as weekly flights to St. Petersburg and Moscow.
This is Part 4 of a series of posts about my trip around the great silk road cities of Uzbekistan. Click here to read about the Soviet style capital city of Tashkent, the Aladdin-like city of Khiva and the holy city of Bukhara.